Growing up in Toronto, the seventh son and twelfth child of 13, in a liberal Jewish family, it was hard to get a word in edgewise in a family of strong, individual personalities. Adults may want kids to remain quiet and stay in the background, but kids don’t want to be that way. We wanted attention. We wanted to be heard. We wanted to matter—even though we did not understand the world around us.
When I turned 13, I led my congregation in Sabbath services with my bar mitzvah. I worked hard to prepare for that big day, and after chanting the weekly portion of the Torah, I had the opportunity to give a sermon in which I described in English what was just chanted in Hebrew and I offered my considerable (or so I thought) wisdom as to how those lessons may apply to our world today. Hundreds of people sat and listened to what I had to say and, for that morning, what I had to say mattered.
After that, it was back to being relegated to the status of people thinking and/or telling me that “I don’t understand and don’t know what I am talking about.” Later in my teen years, I started to visit my second oldest brother, Howard, in his home. (Howard is 17 years older than me, and his kids are closer in age to me than I am to him.) We would watch TV, and talk about science fiction and fantasy, the movies we saw, and the books we read. He listened and talked to me like my opinion mattered and he helped make me feel like I was important. In my formative years, that resonated with me, and as I look back, it still resonates well with me. I have never forgotten how that felt.
In my general practice, like most, I have lots of families and patients of all ages. But when a child, preteen, or teenager is in my chair, I talk to them as if they are older. I treat them like they matter and show them that their opinion counts. I engage them with questions, find what really gets them excited or happy, and chat about that. And when it comes time to talk dentistry, even though the parent is invariably in the operatory, too, I talk to the patient and let the parent listen, as opposed to talking to the parent and having the child listen. It’s a powerful, yet subtle difference for me.
Twelve-year-old Hayden came to me recently for a third opinion. His parents brought him, but when I greeted him, I said, “So I understand I am the third dentist you are seeing about some pain you are having. Tell me about what you are feeling.” Mom was standing right there, but I wanted Hayden to talk to me. He told me that his upper front teeth hurt, especially when he wakes up in the morning. He told me the other two dentists only talked to his mom and told her what was going on but he did not understand what they were saying, so he did not trust the solutions being presented. I thought that was a pretty reasonable thought process and I applauded mom for listening to her son. It was a friend of theirs, a local orthodontist, who recommended they come and see me.
I took a look at Hayden and did a visual examination. Then I took out my intraoral camera and I showed him his own mouth and described what I was seeing.
Hayden had a deeply 100 percent overclosed bite. He had a posterior open bite. He had anterior maxillary excess. He had narrow arches, and he admitted he snored and had trouble breathing through his nose.
I told him that he is growing, and that his lower jaw is trying to grow, but his front teeth are in the way. I showed him how narrow his upper jaw was and that he was pushing his lower jaw forward against his upper teeth as he was subconsciously fighting to open his airway. We also took some digital X-rays and showed him those as well.
His teeth, individually, were fine. What he needed was to see the orthodontist and get his treatment started right away. And, because I talked directly to Hayden, with mom listening, he took ownership of his own body and his mouth and he was ready to move forward. Hayden was happy, and therefore, so were mom and I.
I have learned that everyone just wants to feel just a little bit important. They want to feel like they matter. And, to make them feel that way, sometimes we just need to stop and listen to what they have to say. It makes my day less of a grind.
Larry Stanleigh, MSc, DDS, FADI, FICD, FACD